The Scream & The Silence: Youth Engagement during the High Holidays

This time of year is marked by a frenetic gravity. Repetitive, a building crescendo of shofar blasts, voices caught on the words of selichot, fists pounding chests. A pulse intense and familiar, a High Holy Day rhythm.

What can get lost in this is the kol de’mamah dakah — the small, pure whisper — of the child.

Unlike Pesach, a holiday with rituals constructed wholly for the child’s exploration and education, these High Holy Day rituals seem consequential and grown-up. While adults engage with weighty thoughts of atonement and renewal, children classically focus on apples and honey, the sweetness of this time — a focus which precludes significant character development. 

It is difficult to teach children self-reflection and accountability. It’s undeniably more fraught to have moral conversations than to pique curiosity by running an epic Pesach seder. Adults often run far from these educational opportunities, telling themselves that young children don’t need them. Their discomfort around discussions of failure, assessment, and growth resonates during this time period.

Our children can feel it. 

My most profound memory of shul (synagogue) growing up was on Yom Kippur. At eight or nine years old, I was not yet fasting, but I recall walking around the halls that year, looking for my friends behind closed doors. The rooms were dark, and I stumbled into them one by one until I came across an older woman I knew from the community. My entrance wasn’t noted — she was too focused on her prayers — and I found myself transfixed by the shimmer of tears and deep, deep emotion on her face. Today, I can still picture that moment with clarity. I can still feel those strange butterflies I felt that day as a private observer of such intense emotion.

There is no use hiding children from strong feelings like pain, shame, rage, awe, inferiority, or grief. They feel these things too, perhaps with even greater purity. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the state of spirituality as “radical amazement” and at the core of this is both the ability to experience great joy and to experience great sorrow. Children whose positive and negative emotional experiences are nourished and affirmed have the capacity to be deeply spiritual beings. And many children are yearning to be recognized in this way. They may be asking you — though it may just be a whisper.

As we approach the Yamim Noraim (aptly, “Days of Awe”) this year, take a few minutes with your young child or spend an hour with your older one. Ask them what they know about this time period; have a conversation about apologies and confession, judgment and growth. You can use some of the questions attached on the following page in our youth simanim guide, if it helps. 

In the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai: “As for the scream, as for the silence,/I am always a shofar:/Hoarding, all year long, its one blast/For the terrible Days of Awe.”

It’s easy to push the scream and the silence away. But do we know how to listen?

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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